On Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Kings suffered a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights in game one of their first round Western Conference Playoff series. Although the game was played in a tight checking, low scoring manner that is typically favorable for the Kings, the silver and black were unable to garner meaningful scoring opportunities throughout. Despite a heroic effort from Vezina Trophy hopeful Jonathan Quick, Golden Knights’ defenseman Shea Theodore’s first period deflected point shot was the game’s only puck that was able to tickle the twine.
Not only was the team’s inability to orchestrate any semblance of offense disconcerting, the already depleted defensive core will now be without their all-world leader Drew Doughty, for game two.
Doughty Completes His Check
During the third period of Wednesday’s hard-hitting affair, speedy Golden Knighs forward William Carrier buccaneered his way down the right wing with his sights set on the Kings goal. Alas, Doughty displayed his supreme closing speed and physical presence by driving through the unsuspecting forward and putting an end to the threat. The hit did not result in a penalty call, but did initiate the dialogue of whether or not it was a suspendable offense, as Doughty’s shoulder did make contact with the winger’s head:
Should Drew Doughty be suspended for his hit? He has a hearing at 4:30pm ET pic.twitter.com/J7yU60Cyn7
— SiriusXM NHL Network (@SiriusXMNHL) April 12, 2018
On Thursday afternoon, Doughty had a hearing with head of NHL player safety George Parros to review the hit. It was substantiated by the newly appointed Parros that, although Doughty’s shoulder initially made contact with Carrier’s shoulder, “an illegal check to the head rule doesn’t take into account what the first point of contact is.” As a result, the perennial all-star defender was suspended for game two of the series.
The punishment is rather harsh given the aforementioned lack of a penalty call, the magnitude of the suspension’s timing, and Doughty’s consistent Norris Trophy-like level of play. One might surmise that Parros used the Kings’ defenseman to set an example and/or to amplify the message that there is a new sheriff in town.
Coach Stevens Befuddled
Understandably, Kings fans have voiced their displeasure with the ruling via social media. In addition, Kings’ head coach John Stevens seemed to be befuddled with the suspension when probed following the team’s practice on Thursday.
I thought you had two teams that played a real good hard, honest game. That was my interpretation. I think both teams upped their intensity and both teams understand the importance of the battle on the puck and there’s usually some kind of physical confrontation that comes from that.
With the Doughty suspension, Stevens’ depleted back-end now has a gargantuan vacancy to fill for game two.
Kings’ Defensive Conundrum
The Kings’ blue line is in a state of peril. Steadily progressing youngster, Derek Forbort has been sidelined with a lower body injury and has no timetable for a return. Long-time veteran, Jake Muzzin has been on the mend for six games with an upper body injury and is nearing a return, but was wearing a non-contact jersey during Thursday’s practice. This all but means that he will not be on the ice with his teammates trying to avert a two-nothing series deficit.
Gravel the “Next Man Up?”
Given the precarious position the Kings’ back-end is currently facing, the team will need to quickly pivot and anoint the ever popular “next man up”. With an ever diminishing lack of options, the favorite to take on this role is likely Kevin Gravel. The 26-year old has only appeared in 16 games for the Kings this season, often playing with the club’s AHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign instead.
Coach Stevens may need to be creative with his defensive pairings into order to mask the evident lack of experience on the team’s back-end. A suitable matching for Gravel would likely be with one of the team’s veteran blue-liners, Dion Phaneuf or Alec Martinez. Conversely, coach Stevens would be ill-advised to pair Gravel with Doughty’s partner in game one, Oscar Fantenberg.
Fantenberg a Deer in the Headlights
The 26-year Swedish defender has had a fair first season in the NHL with the Kings, however, was routinely exposed on Wednesday night. Fantenberg saw a staggering 19:39 of ice-time, namely due to the fact that he was paired with Doughty. He routinely looked overwhelmed by the playoff atmosphere, which resulted in errand passes and general shakiness overall. Perhaps the most troubling part is that despite this lackluster play, Stevens continued with the Doughty-Fantenberg throughout the game. This includes the duo seeing a majority of the game’s final two (plus) minutes.
Either Fantenberg will have to pull up his bootstraps or Stevens will have to get creative in game two to respond to the blow that was dealt on Wednesday night.